My mother is a novelist and she asked me to write her a guide to writing productivity for Christmas. She and I have very different writing styles…I’m a scientist and a large portion of my job is writing (be it grants, proposals, or papers). Her main problem is discipline. Writing for her isn’t a job with deadlines like it is for me. So I thought I’d share my guide here in case anyone else was interested.
SOIMF*’s Guide to Writing Productivity:
Designate a “work day”
The exact timing and duration of the work day are not important. What matters is that you set aside some length of time each day for writing. That time should be consistent each day so that you train your mind to focus on your writing tasks.
Start each work day with clear and achievable objectives
Objectives are to projects what vacuuming is to cleaning the house. If cleaning the house is your overall project, then vacuuming is one objective that you can achieve that will get you closer to your goal. Notice that “cleaning the house” is not a clearly defined objective the way that vacuuming a room is. Without some stopping rule, you can essentially keep cleaning forever. Objectives are important so that you can achieve and recognize something every day. Thus, you want to start every day with a physical or mental list of objectives that you want to achieve. It is equally important to make them achievable, which means that it is possible and reasonable to accomplish them within your given workday.
Eliminate known non-productive distractions during the work day
Distractions may include websites, games, phone calls, youtube videos, or television. All of these are verboten during the hours you’ve set aside for writing. For me, I have certain websites I am not allowed to visit from 9 to 5 (I work outside these hours, but my work day rules are most stringently applied between 9 am and 5 pm). You can play games or watch videos to your heart’s desire outside of work hours, but never during work hours. Distractions will eat your time like nothing else.
Learn your work pattern
What styles and tools make you most productive at writing? What time of day is best for creativity and productivity? For me, this involves listening to music. I can write at any time of day, but many people can only write in the morning or only in the afternoon. Other tools I have on hand for writing are: scrap paper for scribbling notes or ideas that don’t easily fit in a computer document, a searchable list of references (either with an annotated bib or a reference manager), and any related correspondence (i.e. emails, meeting notes, etc). You want these sources to be on hand while you’re writing so you don’t waste a lot of time searching through your email, for example (see “Organization”).
Develop and utilize productive distractions
Productive distractions are essential to have on hand when you hit a mental block. These allow you to switch your attention away from writing itself toward tasks that will ultimately make your writing more efficient and in many cases will improve the quality of your writing. Productive distractions for me include other projects, data analysis, data entry, email correspondence, and organization of files and folders, both digital and paper.
Develop a set of prioritizations
Prioritizations help you distribute your time between multiple tasks and projects effectively. Priorities can be established on a list or mentally, and should be flexible and responsive to external stimuli (i.e. deadlines, new information, co-authors). You can have more than one “number one” priority, as long as you are able to divide your time efficiently between them. Lower priority items should be reserved for productive distraction, which will inevitably occur when you get writer’s block. Know your deadlines.
Acknowledge your accomplishments
Be sure to take the time to acknowledge and appreciate what you have accomplished! Without this mental reward, you will soon burn out.
To-do lists fall into the category of “productive distraction.” I like to make to-do lists when I am feeling overwhelmed by a large number of tasks, or when I complete a large project and need to regroup and reprioritize my objectives. However, to-do lists should not be written in stone. Every to-do list needs to be editable and I often make and remake to-do lists periodically. To-do lists are especially important before you take a hiatus or vacation. Be sure to write careful notes about what your objectives and priorities were before you leave for any significant period of time.
Organization is essential for effective and productive writing. I organize each paper in a series of file folders on my computer. A file folder dedicated to a given project may have additional sub-folders for data analysis, data files, or results. But you must have one dedicated place where you can find all materials related to your writing (including email correspondence and reviews). You must also name the files in a useful way. Multiple drafts of a manuscript are dated by who has reviewed them, who is an author, and the date. Substantial revisions or co-author contributions are saved in a new file on a different date. Keeping track of your materials will prevent you from wasting time hunting for some source or reference. An online calendar is a critical piece of my organization, and many others use physical calendars.
Plain old pen and paper:
I always have a blank (ish) sheet of paper and a pen ready at hand when I’m writing because the flow of my thoughts does not always fit well on a computer screen. Having that sheet of paper handy lets me scribble notes and ideas and diagram the flow of thoughts, or sketch out important figures for my papers. I generally keep these papers around until a) I have exhausted the ideas on the paper in my written document or b) I have completed the project. Never underestimate the power of scribbling! Get those ideas down before you lose them.
Sometimes you just want to blank your mind out or think about trivial things when you’re exercising, but I find that it can also be a great opportunity to develop a game plan for a particularly difficult piece of writing. Having the change of setting can help me think through a paragraph or section that just isn’t working and I return with a ready plan to make changes.
Writing often lends itself to feeling overwhelmed. When you feel panicky about a given writing project, take the time away from the writing to do a productive task, such as a to-do list. In a real emergency, write even small tasks you have already completed on the to-do list and immediately cross them off. Other productive distractions in case of feeling overwhelmed can include exercise, a cup of tea, or a fun writing exercise.
Other working/writing tools:
People are smart and it’s broadly acknowledged that everyone has a different work patterns that works for them! Thus, there are a lot of tools online you can use to make yourself more productive. One example is Pomodoro (tomato): this technique is to break work into smaller, more manageable intervals and then have short breaks in between each interval. This works for some of my friends and there are apps and websites that can help you use it (e.g. https://tomato-timer.com/).
Another strategy some of my friends use is to have a distinct work area just for writing. This often is a café or the library. This doesn’t work for me (I’m distracted by all the people), but it works for lots of people.
Writing and revising for me generally heartily involve the contributions of other brains. Talking about your writing is useful, having people give you edits and comments is even better! Be sure to take advice with a grain of salt…think about why the reader made the comments they made and how or whether you can apply them.